The Emotional Side of Running

No one who has set out for a run can deny that they have felt a range of emotions about their running. From frustration on a bad run, anger over an injury, optimism about an upcoming race, and pride in a new PR, runners experience and draw upon all the basic emotions. Take this list of emotions and ask yourself if you have NEVER felt at least one before, during, or after a run: fear, joy, trust, sadness, anger, anticipation, optimism, submission, awe, remorse, aggressiveness, even love. Hard to find one that we haven’t experienced.

Consider the role of music in running. How many of has NOT used some playlist on our mp3 players to get through some tough miles, to find some emotional inspiration in lyrics or a special musical rhythm? In fact, there are people who specialize in supplying running music for runners, whether to match a specific cadence/pace requirement or to help runners lose themselves in their running. When I need that special oomph in a run, I turn to a couple of special songs that have struck an emotional chord in me. Who hasn’t done so?

So why is it then, that we are often taught to ignore or suppress the emotional side of our running; to treat our running like a clinical exercise? There are those who would prescribe forgetting a bad run (or even a good run for that matter, to prevent overconfidence or complacency) as a means of moving forward, of getting past the past. What good does it do us to suppress the emotional, spiritual side of running in order to perform better? And is that even possible if our genetic makeup requires addressing that emotional, mental side of running?

I’m here to submit to you that running is not a clinical, soulless exercise. That it is okay to experience and express emotions before, during, and after running. In fact, we can become better runners if we learn to understand what out emotional side requires from us and from our supporters. If we do not learn to understand what our emotions tell us, then we cannot grow as individuals, as runners. But the issue is a little deeper than learning to express emotion in a healthy way. The issue gets to the very nature of humanity itself.

We now know, thanks to the Human Genome project that no two humans are alike (well, we knew it for a long time, but some geeks in lab coats confirmed it for us). If this is true (and why wouldn’t it be, anyone found their exact twin recently?), then we must grant that runners as individuals are different. I’m not talking about paces, stride length, foot strike, or speed. What I’m writing about is runner temperament, runner emotions, and runner psyche. We are distinct, each of us possessing a set of ideals and beliefs and attitudes that derive from nature or have been nurtured in our environment. And as runners, we are no different. Each runner has a different temperament, attitude, outlook; a set of world views as they relate to the sport we all so dearly love (and sometimes hate—see, emotion!).

So what’s my point? My point is that the secret to runner success can be found not only in the training, the miles, the hill work, the speed work, the gear, or the race-day conditions, but also, and perhaps most important, in the runner’s mind! There has been a lot of recent literature and focus recently on the mind of the runner, but most of it (at least that which I have read) focuses on the necessity of understanding that the mind controls the body, that the body can do more than the mind “thinks” it can, and that once one understands that, then running progress can occur quicker. In short, this literature has focused on the mind/body relationship. But what about the need to understand a runner’s emotional needs? If we are not all alike, then we must realize that each runner has certain emotional needs. Some runners need positive reinforcement in their training and races. Others need “tough love” as a motivator to improve. There are those runners who exhibit a dispassion for their running, a sort of mechanical nature to their emotional side, but they too have an emotional side that they are suppressing.

We do a disservice to ourselves and those we support, then, when we appreciate that strides and gaits are distinct, yet ignore the variety of runners’ emotional needs. Imagine trying to fit all runners into the same model and style of running shoe. Chances are that someone will become injured by this “one size fits all” mentality. Yet, we do this when we neglect the emotional differences in runners. And worse yet, when we dispense running advice to one another we should fully appreciate those physical and emotional differences. Just because one runner may be able to take a bad run or a lousy race and forget it, to clear it out of the mind immediately, doesn’t mean that the next runner will be able to do the same. If the former can forget the bad, the latter might require a purging of the bad memories of a race or negative running result. And without that purging the runner may fail to move on with a clear and focused mind for fear of reliving a unique event. Without a discussion of what happened, why it happened, and what can be done to prevent or overcome a negative event, some runners are unable to move on. And yet this is not rocket science. Often the answer is a simple: not your fault. Other times the answer can contain specific actions a runner did or did not take. Regardless of WHAT the answer is, the runner who requires this closure MUST get this closure. Some runners need a beer after the race in order to move on. Others need more elaborate measures, from deep-thinking conversation, to a boat load of tears. The sooner that we realize what kind of runner we are emotionally, then the quicker we can adapt to those needs and grow. Just because you are able to quickly come to terms with a bad result doesn’t mean that the person you are advising or training can. The essence of a good running friendship or training relationship is the mutual awareness of these differences and needs that each person has. One size most definitely does not fit all.

So why am I writing this? Well, for one, I’m on vacation and my mind is not occupied with work matters. Second, I’ve thought about this issue for some time now. When you cry after your first marathon and get mocked for it ever since, you find yourself thinking about why some people express emotions and others don’t. And third, being able to observe the training programs of several friends and their various successes and failures has given me an opportunity for observation and analysis. Running is like that. It is one of the few sports where we’ve all been through what every other runner has been through (except maybe BQing or winning a marathon, but you get my drift). So running lends itself to be, at once, objectively and subjectively analyzed. It offers a level of experiential analysis that few other sports can claim. I mean, really, how many of us could identify fully with Derek Jeter winning the World Series as part of the Yankees Baseball Club?

So just as we need to be aware of our physical needs and limitations, we should also be aware of our emotional needs. And more important we need to let fellow runners know what they are and how best they can support us in our running.

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15 Comments

  1. Great post Gordon, and I'm the first to admit that I choked up at the starting line of my first marathon. Given where I began a year earlier, getting to that starting line was more of a journey than it was to actually finish the race.

  2. Well done Gordon, some excellent posts! I cry every time I WATCH the IM. I can't imagine what would happen if I ever finished a marathon or IM myself…

    I must admit, I experience frustration more often than any other emotion, but it is chance that today will bring absolute joy that keeps bringing me back. And if wasn't for the constant support and encouragement that I receive from my online friends, I probably would have given up a while ago.

    Thanks for writing this.

  3. Great job! I am an emotional runner, at least now that I am a mom (and before, a little bit also, meaning I cry here and there). I do think it means we're human!

  4. I agree with Pete, Gordon. We all run at emotional levels as we run. Our minds are focused, our body is working hard, and our hearts (physically and emotionally) are working overtime.

    Running and music go together for me, hand in hand. I cannot run without my music. I hate the sound of hearing myself breathe and the lyrics, beats, etc. get my legs working like that have never worked before.

    I never really was emotional at the start of my first full marathon but I was pretty emotional afterwards. All of my family was there at the end and it was a pretty cool feeling.

    The one that I know that I will be emotional at is next years Disney World Marathon 2011. We have been going to WDW since I was 4 years old and I cannot wait to experience my two passions (WDW and Running) at the same time. I want to run for a good time but I also want to soak up every minute of it as I run down Main Street and through Epcot. I know that I will be an emotional wreck at the end of that one!

    Thanks for your article! I was great.

    Brett
    @mrbrettyoung

  5. Hi!!, I like your post over here!!, I believe in what you are saying a lot!!, personally, I have been struggling lately to have a decent run, and I am not quite sure what is going on with me, and this is when I believe that the motivation, which is different in every runner comes into play, and with that, the emotional side of running as you explain it on your blog

    I really enjoyed reading this, good post

    Keep on running,

    Atrusni

    http://web.me.com/amaurydeleon

  6. Well said. There is wisdom in the self discovery of running. One of the things I like about running is the whiplash of emotions. Keep it up and screw those who 'mock'. 🙂

  7. Lovely message Gordon. If you aren't enjoying all your emotions when you're running you might as well just quit. When you cry at the end of a marathon, your fellow runners cry with you. If you can laugh it off when you've had a crappy run you're ahead of the game. One foot in front of the other and on we go.

  8. Gordon, you have clearly spent much time thinking about how emotions affect each runner differently. I gave me pause even in the brief interval between finishing your thoughts, reading the comments, and writing this comment of mine. I, too, have frequently wondered about how the range of emotion affects runners. I find it fascinating to watch other runners at the start of the race and see the variety of emotional states. I myself go through a gamut of emotion during training for and running a race and have rarely had anyone to talk to about what I was feeling, except my wife (who, lucky for me, gets it). I thank you for giving runners something to consider as they train themselves or support other runners in their training.

  9. Gordon…beautifully said.

    The first race I ran, a 10K for the WWFOR in 2008, I was amazed to feel tears streaming down my face. I mean, I should have been thrilled, right? Well, I was actually but not just because I completed what I had set out to do but because I was viewing the complete change that I had made in my life…(all 53 years of it)…and I was ecstatic.

    Don't ever be ashamed to feel and express your emotions…it's what seperates us from all the other animals.
    OHCowgirl

  10. Great post…I have certainly experienced all of those emotions while running…In fact, a lot of those emotions sent me out to run so I could work through them.

  11. I can certainly vouch for feeling all sorts of emotions during training runs and races alike. It's time for me to focus on me- both body and soul. If I'm too busy to address my emotional needs, it usually comes out during a run. I am okay with that. In fact, I think it's an essential part of being a whole person. Perhaps some people are not comfortable with it and that's why its not discussed as much. I appreciate you bringing it up.

  12. Hi Gordon –
    There is magic in all things. And that magic IS the human emotional element.
    This reminds me so much of a saying I hear in Disney Fandom. “There are those who 'get it' and those that don't.” For example, when I mention to people that my best friend of 16 years and I cried when we walked into the Magic Kingdom for the very first time together this past winter – I kept getting asked “Why?” So I stopped talked about it. They just didn't “get it” – by no fault of their own. They didn't understand that we have both lost about 100lbs between the two of us this year. That we were so intensely grateful for a friendship that got us through divorces, and all that jazz….

    So I guess it's the same with running. Either you “get it” or you don't. 😉

    After having completed that Triathlon, I can honestly say, I get it, my friend.

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